Two skeletons, an ocean apart and more than 500 and 400 years old respectively, have given scientists and the rest of us a lot to wonder about.
University of Leicester announced this week that the remains found under a parking lot in town are those of England’s King Richard III who died in 1485 fighting Henry Tudor in the Battle of Bosworth. According to historical accounts, Richard’s body was stripped, slung over a horse, brought back to Leicester, dumped into a grave without a coffin, and buried without pomp or ceremony. He was the last English monarch killed in battle.
This remarkable verdict came after rigorous scientific investigations including radiocarbon dating, DNA and bone analyses. It crisscrossed many fields including archeology, anthropology, genetics, genealogy, forensic pathology and engineering, and ancient history. Just the story of where to dig -- in the church choir stall area at the site of the long-gone Greyfriars priory in Leicester – is fascinating.
An ugly hunchback, Shakespeare’s King Richard III was the amoral and scorned villain. After the real King’s death, Tudor historians and other political foes used this spinal abnormality in their arsenal to defame the King’s character and memory. But reports of King Richard’s hunchback and withered arm, as described by Shakespeare and others, were greatly exaggerated. Historians now have the opportunity to separate this man from his myth.
We know now he had no withered arm. The skeleton in the Leicester grave does indeed have severe scoliosis that twisted its spine sideways and could have caused its right shoulder to be higher. Its hands were found crossed indicating they could have been bound, its skull has two fatal wounds possibly from a sword or halberd, and its skeleton has ‘humiliation’ wounds inflicted after death.
When this skeleton’s DNA was found to match two of Richard III’s living maternal line relatives, the team could say beyond reasonable doubt that they and the world were looking at King Richard III.
Across the pond is another story of archeological and forensic heroics. In 2003 archeologists with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities announced they’d discovered the remains of a high-ranking male colonist who was buried ceremoniously in a coffin just outside the 1607 James Fort site at Historic Jamestowne in Jamestown, Virginia. Based on historical, archeological and forensic evidence, Dr. William Kelso, director of archeology at Historic Jamestowne, is confident the remains are Captain Bartholomew Gosnold.
Never heard of him? Gosnold was the principal promoter and vice admiral leader of the Jamestown Colony. As captain of the Godspeed, one of the three ships in the Jamestowne fleet, Gosnold was a privateer who recruited the settlement’s famous Captain John Smith and obtained the charter from King James for the Virginia Company to settle Virginia. Gosnold named Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.
“If this is Gosnold, then we’ve found the ‘lost to history’ burial of one of the most influential and moving spirits behind English-American colonization, hence a founding father of modern America, and one of that elite group of daring English mariners of the Age of Exploration,” says Kelso in a March 21, 2006 press release.
Visitors to James Fort today may be lucky enough to meet Danny Schmidt, senior archeologist who has been there for most of the excavation and is still digging! Schmidt tells that in 2003 the dig first pin-pointed the true shape and size of the first fort in the first permanent English settlement in America. Within this colonial bulls-eye, the team was able to concentrate its efforts. Schmidt gives tours of the current dig, tells what amazing artifacts he’s unearthed, and lets visitors know that they can find Gosnold’s skeleton and the finial from the ceremonial staff found in his grave at the “Written in Bone” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. We did and were thrilled to see a wall-size photo of Schmidt inside a pit as part of the Smithsonian exhibit! The whole experience of watching Jamestown being excavated and following Gosnold to D.C. was a highlight of our visit.
Like finding King Richard III, the evidence uncovered at Jamestown demystifies the settlement. Contrary to popular theory, the James River had not washed away the fort. They’ve found buildings, pits, wells, a church and burials of more than 70 colonists including Gosnold, not to mention more than a million objects reflective of life at James Fort.
Unlike King Richard III, James Fort researchers were unable to match Gosnold’s DNA with the remains of a woman they believed was related. Still, Dr. Douglas Owsley, forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, determined he was a European male who died in his mid-to-late 30s. He showed no sign of death from traumatic injury. That matches the historical accounts: Gosnold was 36 when he died from a 3-week illness just three months after founding the colony.
By juxtaposing historical accounts with archeological discoveries, some history may need rewriting.
For more information about the Smithsonian’s exhibit, “Written in Bone, Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake,” visit: http://anthropology.si.edu/writteninbone/index.html
For more news about the Jamestown Rediscovery project: http://www.historicjamestowne.org/news/
Watch the Feb. 4, 2013 University of Leicester press conference: http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/media-centre/richard-iii
Separating the man from the myth: http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/media-centre/richard-iii/features